Better Late Than Never? Inching Our Way To A 2014 Census Budget

By Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

Breaking news: Republicans and Democrats in Congress have finally agreed upon something! That would be a budget blueprint for the current (FY2014) and next (FY2015) fiscal years, joyfully named the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.

So, what does this agreement mean for Census Bureau funding, everyone breathlessly asks me? Uh, how the heck should I know? Seriously, though, the holiday respite from partisan gridlock is just the start of the overdue funding process for fiscal year 2014, whose clock started ticking on October 1. The Census Bureau, like most federal agencies, has been making do with last year’s funding level, squeezed as that was by sequestration and across-the-board spending cuts. And then there’s the uncertainty of not knowing how much you’ll be able to spend this year — sort of like figuring out how much you can afford to spend on holiday gifts when your boss won’t tell you what your annual salary will be until two months after Christmas.

Did I mention the two-week government shutdown, occurring just when a 2020 Census field test was supposed to start in Philadelphia?

Anyway, the reason I’m still in the dark is that appropriators now must negotiate final spending bills for FY2014, within budget agreement parameters. The current temporary funding measure (at FY2013 levels) runs out on January 15, but when you’re already more than three months late, heck, a deadline is just… well, whatever.

To their credit, House and Senate appropriators passed their respective versions of the FY2014 Commerce, Justice, and Science funding bills (H.R. 2787/S. 1329) earlier this year. The Senate committee — while issuing stern warnings about census costs, and planning and budget transparency (S. Rpt. 113-78) — generously allocated the president’s request of $982.5 million for the Census Bureau. Its House counterpart — apparently confusing the cyclical census up ramp with the down ramp — doled out $844.7 million, $44.5 million below FY2013 funding. The final number will lie somewhere between those markedly (and remarkably) divergent visions of how best to plan for a census.

The budget deal sets a $1.012 trillion cap on discretionary (that is, non-mandatory) spending, sort of splitting the difference between the House- and Senate-passed budget ceilings. Essentially, it restores almost two-thirds of the non-defense sequestration cuts that would have taken effect in FY2014, absent the bipartisan hug. Appropriators, who have a little more wiggle room absent full sequestration, will decide who gets how much of the discretionary pie. Let’s wish upon a Christmas star for an early reprieve in the new year.

It’s time to hit the gas and head up the ramp a little faster. Thorough, on-time research and testing of significant reforms to the census process, and a robust American Community Survey (which also serves as a test-bed for the 2020 Census), are riding on the outcome.